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Finding Your Café

Sometimes you have too many threads in your mind, and you wonder how they’re related—if they’re related—and how to weave them all together.

I’ve been thinking about truth-telling and love.

About friendship.

About what I want to do before I die.

About fiction and non-fiction.

About writing rooms and writing in cafés.

About France and America. Republicans and Democrats.

About health rituals.

About public art and public spaces.




I finished a first draft of a short story this week. When I was five years old, I wanted to write a book of stories when I grew up that my sister, Jane, would illustrate. I’ve always loved the dance between story and visual images. 

Richard and I are collaborating now on Paris Play the way I envisioned doing as a child. Stories and photos about daily life in Paris are one approach. Fictional stories about characters are another.



Having a chambre de bonne has helped me go down into depth in writing fiction. And then today, after the uneasiness of revealing the story's weird characters, the joy of Richard’s enthusiastic response and his edits.

For depth, for listening closely to the muse, I find that solitude is best. But for later drafts, the buzz of a café can spark new word associations and sensory details.



I set out to try once more to write—no, to edit—in a café, taking my new lightweight MacBook Air.



I know the cafes that were second homes to Sartre and Beauvoir; where Hemingway wrote; where Hart Crane met his publisher, Harry Crosby; where Marguerite Duras met other writers; where Samuel Beckett mused; where the Surrealists and Dadaists gathered; where Baudelaire and Rimbaud drank; where James Joyce quoted passages from the Bible; where Scotty Fitzgerald got deathly pale on champagne; where Djuna Barnes passed around her work; where Richard Wright entertained Martin Luther King, Jr.; where Gabriel García Márquez dined; where Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin fought; where Oscar Wilde quipped; where Proust sipped beer. I’ll take you on a tour of these places if you gather a small group and give me a little notice.



But I wanted a café of my own. Why should I follow in anyone else’s footsteps? Except maybe Chekhov’s, but he didn’t write in Paris. The kind of story that Chekhov wrote is my model. All he really cared about was character. Not scenery (though at his best in “The Lady with the Dog,” his descriptions of the countryside near Yalta in the summer and Moscow in the winter, are heart-stoppingly lovely); not gymnastic language (his simple language gives you all you need to know); not plot (though his stories reveal action emerging from character). X-ray vision about character—that was Chekhov’s genius.

I walked past the Montaigne statue across from the Sorbonne, and rubbed his buckled golden shoe for luck. He smiled down at me with that ironic, good-humored smile.



I had two cafés in mind to try tonight. In passing one, I noticed that there was a spacious area in one corner beckoning me to sit. No one too close. Books behind the red banquette. An open air view onto the sidewalk and a crossroads (because all the artists’ and writers’ favorite cafés are near Métro stations and at carrefours). And I already knew that the waiters there struck just the right balance between being attentive and leaving you alone.



I settled in and sure enough, the waiter quickly brought me gazpacho and toast with olive tapenade, and cider with the tiniest bit of alcohol.

At the nearest table, three British men, filmmakers, apparently, were talking about film and the dementia of one of their parents. They were intensely engaged in conversation, listening as much as they talked about art and life, and hallelujah!, in modulated voices. Perfect.



For two hours I edited the story, looking up occasionally at the sidewalk theater. People sat at small tables chatting, drinking and eating. The art of conversation is still alive in Paris.

I’d found my writing café. The only thing more that was needed to make this a perfect day: a film with Richard at home. Maybe we’d watch Monsieur Hire, based on a Georges Simenon mystery, as our French lesson before we went to sleep.    

As for truth and love, friendship and death… all those other subjects? We can talk about those later.





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Reader Comments (22)

A cafe of one's own! Yes, it doesn't have to be a famous cafe, because those are generally crowded and full of tourists. Which is fine for certain times. But for work, better a cafe that is just a cafe, like the one you found to work in (Are you keeping its name a secret, or is that it in Richard's photo?). Of course, as I say, different cafes for different purposes: cafes for work, for food, for meeting new people, for reading, for first dates, for sunny days, for cold days. Even the historically-vibed cafes, such as Magots, Flore and Select, are perfect for celebrations like when I first arrive in Paris for my summer sabbatical. Yes, many cafes of one's own. And that celebrity cafe tour you are offering--put my name on the list for next summer. Vive le cafe! --John

Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 22:44 | Unregistered CommenterL. John Harris

Dearest Kaaren and Richard:

To be a part of Paris Play is my creative spiritual self-care. My absence from contributing is a barometer of the weakness of my artist self. The cafe is not only the reality of caffeine and community, but a place where we give ourselves the freedom and permission to be artists. When we enter our cafe there is the sense that our contribution to our world is valid. Paris Play is Kaaren and Richard's Cafe in this virtual place where we gather, where we exchange ideas, share work and feel that sense of belonging. Paris Play is home for the artist and the lover of art. In our work we find ourselves, discover ourselves and reveal ourselves.

The Paris Play Cafe opens its doors and invites us to leave our pretense at the door like a wet umbrella.

I commend you both for keeping your doors open and the quality of the work and your truth.

With so much love and affection,


Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 22:52 | Unregistered CommenterJon Hess

Loved this!

Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 23:27 | Unregistered CommenterSusan griffin

Hi John,

Great to hear from you. Oh yes, the cafe name was omitted on purpose, and Richard, who protects my solitude as I protect his, did not post a photo. But you're right--there are other cafes I prefer for meeting friends. And a few others are best for romantic get-togethers. (We keep those ones secret, too.)

Oh good, I'm glad that you're interested in the cafe literary tour. We might do another one for visual artists, though some cafes were frequented by both. Vive le cafe et vive Paris! See you next summer.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 23:51 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

You make me feel like working again Kaaren! I want in on the conversation about love... oops, capital L required for the real deal-- or maybe not? Like snow-- like rain. All different oui?

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 0:01 | Unregistered CommenterHoladay Mason

Dear Jon,

You never leave off being an artist. Even when you're earning a living as a teacher or on film work. I just read Stephen Elliott's The Rumpus, and thought of you when he raved about the dramatic sense that Ben Affleck seems to have mastered in his latest film, Argo. Stephen wonders where he learned how to ratchet up the drama like that. I chuckled and thought of you: the Leo sense of drama you express in the stories you write, and in the way you read them.

You'll get back to writing, I know. In the meantime, there is a Paris Cafe post we are doing in two weeks for Paris Play #100. I hope to see a contribution from you! (We'll send out the specific invitation soon.)

I love your metaphor of leaving your pretenses by the door like a wet umbrella, and I love our virtual community!

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 0:01 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Susan,

Thank you! And we love you!

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 0:03 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Oh, Holaday! Yes, get right back to work. And I'll bet you can find (or have found) a soulful cafe in Venice. The Love conversation? You're always in on that. Picture what you want, and watch it happen.

I'm thinking of our great conversation last summer at Deux Magots. Hope you're dancing again.


Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 0:16 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Intriguing! Great piece and looking forward to the cafe journey in words and images, as well as the fruit of published short stories, etc !

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 1:43 | Unregistered CommenterCassandra

Dear Cassandra,

It's wonderful to hear from you. I love it that the five of you who've commented so far are all writers, and all talented writers.

We're so glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, we are eager to eat that fruit, of publication, and gallery show.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 2:04 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

I LOVE this one, Kaaren. I lived in cafes back in my NY days.
And I want the tour when I come to Paris, definitely.

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 2:31 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

Hi Connie,

So glad! And you shall have that tour.


Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 2:48 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

You're killing me with this! But your words help/inspire me to travel there in my heart...

Thank you for sharing this world with us and inviting us in - but thanks, also, for keeping your secrets close - we all need to both share and protect what is sacred.

Off to write. Sante, T

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 17:54 | Unregistered CommenterTara


While we were in the bookstore coffeeshop this afternoon,
me having a decaf after intensive care hospital stay of only
three days ago, I looked to my left, an
enviable table by the tall window,
and saw an obese man with curly black
hair and beard and thick glasses
writing very swiftly and confidently in a large
blank-page notebook
and just like me he also had a copy of
"The Best American Poetry 1994" on the
table in front of him, and I would have been
doing the same if I hadn't had my wife, young
daughter and her girlfriend with me,

had had in the back of my mind as we were
driving to the bookstore this sunny Sunday
that I would get a
poetry book, buy some decaf, read a few
poems to swing open the Gates of Perception a little,
then write a poem that was brighter, wider, sweeter and
wiser than any in the book, and now in

clear blue shirt of celestial imagination
in a parallel universe to mine, but surrounded by
solitude, open space all
around him for the muses and angels of
pure delight to
play their heart-shaped harps and
bang their slow tambourines as if
through water
was this imagined poet writing what I imagined
might be a truly great poem, his
hands flying like quicksilver across the page,
(I spied the writing, left-handed with ball-point,
slanting upward)
with such lines perhaps as:
"The delectable desserts
showered themselves without letup
on the gratefully awaiting mendicants,"
"Across wide Savannas gazelle in sinuous herds
execute the penmanship of flight,"
"Mountains rose up behind mountains,
the breath of birds mingled with the
breath of men in the
middle air" --
lines linked in epic sweep, turning
in on themselves in labyrinthine
post-modernist splendor, yet as
passionate as he was passionate, seated heavily in his
chair as if sky's weight were pressing
down on him, but the
pressure releasing geysers of
spray in words and images
shimmering with the
perfect arc of their song!


As I left and passed by his table
I leaned down to him and said I was
going home to write a poem about a
poet writing a poem in the bookstore coffeeshop
and then I would write some of what the
poem was he was
writing so inspiredly, making it up myself,
and before he
reacted I saw his notebook page, and the
handwriting I thought was a
hurried scrawl from two tables away had some
very elegant "y" backloops and looked
extremely well-wrought, and the
whole poem interesting, and he
smiled and said something about
"You should write a poem as if it were being written in a
coffeeshop about a poet writing a
poem about a poet writing a..." and I
knew where he was
going with this, and said, "Yeah, the
postmodern labyrinth,"
and he looked at me with round eyes and
bushy black eyebrows through thickish
round glasses, and I
went away with an impression of how
really great his poem might be, as well as
how awful, but in my
envious heart it was great, and I sort of
sensed it in a space of its own, only
in my mind, about
intimate relationships set against a
landscape of poplars and oaks,
and the sensibility in the poem was both
deftly magic and dastardly tragic, dark greens and
heavy boughs hanging down, expansive and
oppressive at the same time, and my
thinking of it in this way was that
vision we have of real existence that always eludes us
beyond the
lip of our own particular personal cliff-edge,
seeing another person and imagining
them enjoying superlative happiness, spiritual
fulfillment, no
frustration, sensing in ourselves the
imagined dimensions of someone totally else, which is
what love is -- or is love rather
facing a mystery so totally
unfathomable in another person, that person's universe
with its own sun and stars, its
own Supreme Deity, Who
blesses and draws them
near, or keeps them
at a distance for a reason,
each road to that
resplendent peak sprinkled with
real gold and
shed upon with
real light --

or is love rather when we enjoy someone else's
self-enclosed dimension past our
own apprehension of it, but still see
God's unique Light shining through it
in a continuous shower

even from our separation?

3 / The Poem

"Who it was I am thinking about, those two
who came together down the path toward me
with the same wind touching them both, rustling their
hair as well as the
leafy hair of poplars and childhood
oaks behind them,
and the man in the hospital with atrial fibrillation
into whose life the poplar boughs and childhood
oak trees also blew,
hooked up to saline drip and constant cardiogram,
along rivers that branch and fork,
along the wide road down from the family mansion,

all of us hooked by intravenous drip
to our own human ancestry, gone back only a
few years in conscious memory
but millenniums in molecular recording, genetic
archive of all the laughing faces around
campfires as well as
faces of shock watching a family slide down an
abyss into a chasm of echoes so
deep only silence reverberates
in our present-day ears,

only a silence of poplars and oaks,
as mountains rise up behind mountains
and the breath of birds mingles with the
breath of men in the
middle air."
(from A Hundred Little 3D Pictures, unpublished)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 21:11 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Abdal-Hayy Moore


A part of your heart is here in Paris, and your table awaits you at your favorite cafe.

Secrets and sharing--they're both delicious, aren't they.

Jon's new arts center will have a great cafe next to the new Changing Hands bookstore. Next time I visit family, I'll meet you there. Or else, we'll see you in Paris.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 23:41 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for posting this poem here, your beautiful cafe poem with all its time dimensions and layers. It contains so much yearning, the tension between family and solitary poet, sickness and health, hospital and mountains, birds, flight.

Much love,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 23:51 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Kaaren & Richard,

Ditto on Jon Hess' sentiments.

"For depth, for listening closely to the muse, I find that solitude is best. But for later drafts, the buzz of a café can spark new word associations and sensory details.'

This Paris Play brought to awareness my unconscious routines for putting myself in the best set and setting, or ambience, for establishing a writing flow. I have a selection of cafes for different writing purposes.

I realize that one of my cafes is on wheels. About three times a week, with my coffee, I park at the cliffs above the ocean, in the quiet dark, moon and stars above. Breathe the ocean air, listening to rhythmic waves, while mulling over my dream symbolism, and any other thoughts or ideas that are vying for my attention. Often times there'll be some nature symbolism at the ocean; cloud shapes, dolphins, sea lions, squirrels, crows, pelicans, seagulls, along with their interactions.

Then when the sun has risen, I write, while the world begins its comings and goings.

Prior to my weekly mystical studies group, I take myself to a cafe where the barristas take great pride in their latte foam. I put on my glasses and "read" the symbolism in the foam. I don't need a lot of time there, so the hard back chairs suffice.

The pictures depicting a variety of settings reminds me that I have places with funky, cozy couches for nestling in. The places with hard back chairs are okay for a quick and dirty visit while en route, and the potential cast of characters, other patrons, the barristas all add flavor.

This post has deepening my enjoyment of one of my greatest pleasures; writing with the inspiration of caffeine and a team of muses.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 6:06 | Unregistered CommenterMarguerite Baca

Dear Marguerite,

I love being able to picture your morning ritual, which is quite beautiful. To be ready to greet the sun before he even rises, while facing the ocean, with coffee in your hand and a peaceful spirit, what better way to greet the day?!

Thank you, merci, gracias, chere amie,

Kaaren (& Richard)

Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 21:19 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Having shared a café (and a coffee of sorts) with you just a week or two ago, it's nice to see this post you mentioned come to fruition.

I've often thought it would be nice to have my own Paris café but I've never tried hard enough or been serendipitous enough to find one. Not living in the same place for long enough and even caring enough have helped (not to find one) too.

And then, to be honest, I don't go to cafés that often -- I'd like to though.

Some of my favourite poems have been about cafés though - there's something about the places that seems to spark something in me, although not for long time I'm afraid. I agree that the famous ones probably aren't going to be 'that special one' and you are right, of course, to keep 'yours' a secret - the sharing of the idea is all that's needed.

In the end, considering all of Paris 'my city', any café I happen to stumble across tends to be 'my' café for the day.

Friday, September 14, 2012 at 12:09 | Unregistered CommenterSab

Hi Sab,

Great to hear from you! Getting together with you and Richard last week at our neighborhood cafe and talking about Paris, street art, photography, writing, life: what better place to see friends? But you and Richard are both too peripatetic as photographers and urban explorers to have only one cafe. I'll bet you know more of them in Paris than I will ever know.

If you've written a poem about a Paris cafe, please send it to my e-mail address!


Kaaren (& Richard)

Friday, September 14, 2012 at 21:00 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

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